‘Knox Goes Away’ Review: A Not-So-Simple Plan

Movies rarely pause to simply watch a character think, and not all actors can withstand the scrutiny. Michael Keaton, however, has always been uncommonly adept at telegraphing intent with minimum dialogue. So when, early in “Knox Goes Away,” his character, a contract killer named John Knox, is warned by his doctor of an imminent mental health crisis, Keaton’s control is more eloquent than any breakdown.

Unfolding over seven weeks, “Knox Goes Away” is, like its antihero, smart, unconventional and almost obsessively careful. Its unhurried pacing and mood of quiet deliberation won’t be for everyone; but this low-key thriller resolves its shockingly high stakes with a twisty intelligence. Knox is a creature of habit, a lover of philosophy (his longtime Polish escort — the wonderful Joanna Kulig, of Pawel Pawlikowski’s 2018 romance, “Cold War” — calls him Aristotle) — and a prized professional. But when his final job goes very wrong, and the blast radius threatens to enclose his criminal associates, Knox must accelerate his retirement plan. Of course his long-estranged son (James Marsden) chooses just this moment to beg for help in resolving an emergency of his own.

The pleasure of “Knox Goes Away” lies in the tension between Knox’s rapidly deteriorating mental faculties and his meticulously devious plan to solve both predicaments, all while hoodwinking the cunning detective (Suzy Nakamura) following behind. Both Al Pacino and Marcia Gay Harden are perfectly understated in small, crucial roles, and the film (Keaton’s second as director, after his similarly brooding 2009 drama, “The Merry Gentleman” ) relishes their restraint.

At a time when too many actors are cosmetically prohibited from raising an eyebrow or wrinkling a nose, Keaton reminds us that an expressive face is still a movie’s most valuable asset.

Knox Goes Away
Rated R for cold blood and a hot temper. Running time 1 hour 54 minutes. In theaters.

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